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UND’s Body Project aims to counteract media’s unattainable image of ‘the perfect woman’

"The Body Project" workshop leader Yuliya Kartoshkina.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

By the time they hit puberty, girls are “bombarded” with messages designed to increase their dissatisfaction with their bodies and convince them that their happiness and success depend on how they look, said Yuliya Kartoshkina, a UND doctoral student in education.

Such influences are unhealthy and potentially damaging to women because the pervasive image of the “perfect woman” — or the “thin ideal” — is impossible to attain, she said.

The image is “not real,” she said, “but (women) believe it because others think that it’s real.” 

Technology, such as digital enhancement of photos, for example, can create “perfection” where it doesn’t exist, she said.

Studies have shown that “girls, at age 10, are now afraid of getting fat, of not fitting in,” she said. “As a result, they’re not happy.”

Kartoshkina has led a free workshop on UND campus, “The Body Project,” which is aimed at helping women to recognize how the media — television, movies and magazines — and the fashion and cosmetics industries have shaped their ideas about themselves.

The Body Project is meant to keep women from buying into the notion that their identity is tied to beauty, as defined by external entities, she said.

“It’s about accepting your body.”

Through discussion, exercises and role-playing with their peers, participants gain deeper insight into how pressure to be thin has affected them, she said.

One of the women in the workshop said she “didn’t eat for a while because she felt so bad about (her body),” Kartoshkina said.

One woman in the workshop talked about not exercising at a gym because she felt “everyone was judging me,” and not wearing shorts because her legs didn’t look good enough, she said.

“The language we use to talk about our bodies is usually negative,” so when she asked students to make positive statements about themselves, “they said, ‘it’s so strange, it’s so hard. I don’t usually do this.’”    

One participant said she loved her legs “because they allow me to dance.” Another said she loved her hands because they’re shaped like her father’s, Kartoshkina said.

“It’s one of the most beautiful exercises.” 

They also talked about how the body image ideal has changed over time, how it was developed and why, how to develop a healthy body image, how to decrease binge eating and how to love your body more, she said.

They analyze the motives behind this pressure as they discuss “who’s benefitting from it,” she said.

“We went through why magazines (present) the things they do,” said Madison Wessling, a UND sophomore who took the recent workshop. “They profited; we didn’t.”

“The problem is, society is telling us we’re not beautiful enough … not perfect enough,” Wessling said. “It’s a money-making message.

“We’re not products, we’re people. We’re more than how we do our hair. It just doesn’t matter, or at least it shouldn’t.”

Body acceptance

The Body Project is a “cognitive-dissonance-based body acceptance intervention” created to help adolescent girls and young women resist socio-cultural pressures to conform to the “thin ideal.”

It was originally designed by psychologists at the University of Texas, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, as a way to keep girls from developing eating disorders.

At UND, Body Project workshop participants met for an hour and a half, once a week for two weeks, ending in early March. Between sessions, they were given “homework” aimed at raising their awareness of how such messages have influenced their self-image.

The same program was also offered in early 2013 by the Health and Wellness Hub at UND.

The workshop “creates something different than what women are used to,” Kartoshkina said. “Participants say, ‘it feels so good to hear that others are going through the same struggles.’ I really like the spontaneous support they give each other.

“They feel connected; they share intimate stories. They become very inspired. I think that is what makes the experience so powerful.”

Forming identity

During their teenage years, a girl’s “identity is forming, but she’s not aware of how (it’s) being formed,” Kartoshkina said.

“Being a teenage girl is very hard; your body is changing and you don’t know much about it,” she said.

“I’ve had friends as young as 14 years old who’ve had plastic surgery,” said Kiley Wright, a UND graduate student in communications who attended the workshop.

“It’s interesting to see how (the thin ideal) has evolved and spun out, and gotten just crazy.” 

By the time they’re in college, women “have been working through those pressures and how to deal with those pressures,” Kartoshkina said.

They are “taking gender classes, learning about how brain develops and recognizing more the ways they can fit in,” she said. 

At this age, “they start questioning (the thin ideal) and are ready to start to explore it and talk about it with others.”       

Positive aspect 

One of their homework assignments was to stand naked in front of mirror and say 10 things they liked about their bodies.  

Wessling said she had trouble at first trying to identify what she liked about herself. “It was scary,” she said. After a slow start, “I started snapping them out right and left.”

It was an exercise that she’ll probably continue to do in the future, she said.   

“It’s so easy to think negatively,” she said. “You never hear the message, ‘you’re already great.’ It’s ‘you could do better, you could be better. You need this (product) to be better.’

“It’s interesting to dissect it and see that that is the main message.”

Wessling also noticed that a petite woman in the workshop she attended was damaged by messages that seemed to limit her.  

“She always got messages about ‘how did you get that small?’ She didn’t think she had more to offer,” Wessling said. “She’d work out for three hours a day. It wasn’t making her any happier.

“She was working out so much and was being so cautious, she spent a lot of energy that instead (might have helped) for school or enjoying life.

“She had just as big of a self-esteem problem growing up” as did a more full-figured woman in the workshop, she said. “They both had extremes that didn’t help them.”

Parents’ influence

Sometimes parents reinforce those thin-ideal messages in a misguided effort to give their children competitive advantages in life, said Wright. 

“I had three friends in high school whose parents gave them breast implants as a high school graduation gift. Only one wanted them.”

Parents “think that they’re doing their kids a favor,” she said. 

“They say, ‘you’ve got to have something to sell’ because everyone else is going to have a degree” too, said Wright who has participated in two Body Project workshops.

“Kids grow up thinking, ‘I’ll never be good enough; I’ll never be pretty enough.”

Despite the many advances women have made, “they really chase after this (ideal) image and push it on their daughters.”  

It’s a type of pressure that men don’t get, she said. “It’s nowhere near as much as women.”

She recognizes now that, growing up, she received critical messages about her appearance, which her brother did not, from her parents. She was told that “companies are more likely to hire attractive people, that they may hire any kind of men but prefer attractive women.”

Wessling too said that messages from family and friends may not be intended to harm you, but do, and you need to find your own definition of beauty. “It’s about changing your perspective and realizing that being beautiful is about your perspective on it,” Wessling said. “It’s how you view yourself.”   

The Body Project has changed how she handles chats with friends about body image, she said.

“When people start talking (negatively) about their bodies, I try to avert the conversation to work or school to get them to not talk about themselves so negatively.

“Everybody brings something to the table,” Wessling said. “Everybody has something that should be treasured.”  

Counteracting ‘thin ideal’ messages

Tips from women who participated in The Body Project workshop recently at UND:

  • Realize that images you see in the media are altered; they are not real people. Educate yourself and others about the unreality of these images.
  • Accept that you are unique.
  • Find things you love about yourself; encourage others to do the same. Create awareness.
  • Tell others positive things with a purpose; compliment others.    
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others.
  • Find people who find you attractive, just the way you are,
  • Buy clothing that fits.
  • Imagine every meal as nourishment, not as fat or calories. Learn and follow nutrition guidelines.
  • Focus on health: Take care of your body — don’t starve; eat nutritious, balanced meals and exercise in moderation, not excessively, for the sake of your health.
  • View your body as a functional organism instead of a clothes hanger.
  • Don’t let others’ comments get to you; stand up for yourself. Everyone is beautiful.